Matters Arising: Baptism ad libitum?

Rev. Nicholas Mary C.Ss.R.

Fr. Nicholas Mary answers topical questions in the light of moral theology and canon law.

Concerned grandparents ask:

To our great sorrow, our married children have lapsed from the Faith, and have not had their own children so much as baptised, let alone brought up as Catholics. Would it be advisable, should the opportunity present itself, to baptise our grandchildren secretly ourselves?”

Sadly, the situation described by these faithful grandparents is only too common today. How great is the distress of older Catholics who see their children turn away from the Faith, or at least from its practice, failing to pass it on to the next generation! Nonetheless their own presence in the lives of their children and grandchildren is of the utmost worth, and by their prayers, counsel and example, much is achieved for the salvation of souls. Even if advanced years were to offer nothing other than this noble work, then they would nonetheless be blessed by the immense value of time spent in bringing subsequent generations to the knowledge, love and service of Almighty God.

Having said this, it would certainly not be permitted secretly to baptise one’s grandchildren (or any other infants) unless they were in clear and present danger of death.1

Whilst “an infant of Catholic parents, indeed even of non-Catholic parents, may in danger of death be baptised even if the parents are opposed to it”, and in such a “case of necessity any person with the right intention2 confers baptism licitly”, the Church’s law further stipulates that:

For an infant to be baptised lawfully it is required: 1° that the parents, or at least one of them, or the person who lawfully holds their place, give their consent; 2° that there be a well-founded hope that the child will be brought up in the Catholic religion. If such hope is truly lacking, the baptism is, in accordance with the provisions of particular law, to be deferred and the parents advised of the reason for this.3

This means that the consent of at least one parent or guardian as well as the well-founded hope that the child will later be brought up as a Catholic are required outside of the danger of death, and that we may not take the law into our own hands even though our motivation is excellent.

That parents have the authority to act on behalf of their children before the latter can act on their own behalf is a matter of natural justice. For the same reason that Christian parents can have their children baptised without having to wait until they are able to consent, unbaptised parents can refuse to have them baptised. St Thomas Aquinas explains:

The children of unbelievers either have the use of reason or they have not. If they have, then they already begin to control their own actions, in things that are of Divine or natural law. And therefore of their own accord, and against the will of their parents, they can receive baptism, just as they can contract marriage. Consequently such can lawfully be advised and persuaded to be baptised. If, however, they have not yet the use of free will, according to the natural law they are under the care of their parents as long as they cannot look after themselves. For which reason we say that even the children of the ancients ‘were saved through the faith of their parents'. Wherefore it would be contrary to natural justice if such children were baptised against their parents’ will; just as it would be if one having the use of reason were baptised against his will. Moreover, under the circumstances, it would be dangerous to baptise the children of unbelievers; for they would be liable to lapse into unbelief, by reason of their natural affection for their parents. Therefore it is not the custom of the Church to baptise the children of unbelievers against their parents’ will.4

In his encyclical on Christian Education, Pope Pius XI teaches that all will find in the Catholic Church “the protection of family rights, thereby illustrating that harmony with which God has ordered all things.” He elucidates:

The Church is indeed conscious of her divine mission to all mankind, and of the obligation which all men have to practise the one true religion; and therefore she never tires of defending her right, and of reminding parents of their duty, to have all Catholic-born children baptised and brought up as Christians. On the other hand, so jealous is she of the family's inviolable natural right to educate the children, that she never con- sents, save under peculiar circumstances and with special cautions, to baptise the children of infidels, or provide for their education against the will of the parents, till such time as the children can choose for themselves and freely embrace the Faith.5

Let us here note the difference between the situation of the children of those deemed “infidels” (here used in its ecclesiastical sense to refer to all the unbaptised) and the offspring of the baptised (be the latter practising or lapsed Catholics, or schismatic or heretical non-Catholics). Whereas unbaptised parents have the “inviolable natural right” to refuse the baptism of their underage children, the latter do not. Rather they have a duty to have them baptised and brought up as Christians. Catholics who have lapsed, or who have fallen into heresy and schism, should be exhorted to return to the practice of their Faith, and encouraged and helped to fulfil their duty with regard to their children. Baptised Christians who are born in heresy and schism, however, though technically subject to the Church’s laws, are nonetheless treated as the infidel in this regard; i.e. as being able to refuse permission for their children’s baptism. Even in the case of lapsed Catholics the Church’s law requires parental consent; not because Catholics could ever have a right not to fulfil their duty, but because practically this consent is necessary in order to assure a Catholic upbringing.

In other words, outside the danger of death, the Church only permits the baptism (whether public or secret) of children whose parents or guardians evince a well-founded hope that the child will be brought up in the Catholic religion. The hope need not be based on the state of the home itself. With at least the minimal cooperation of parents or guardians who are themselves indifferent to religion, access to children by a faithful godparent, grandparent or anyone else might be guaranteed, and baptism may proceed. Failing any such realistic hope for what baptism in turn makes necessary (instruction in faith and morals, access to the sacraments, etc.), such children may not be baptised until such time as they are free agents themselves.

Even then, Fr Halligan notes:

Although the children of infidels have a right to receive baptism contrary to parental will, if they have reached the use of reason and are properly instructed and disposed, yet circumstances indicating impending harm to the individual or to the Christian community may advise a postponement. However, the Church does not approve of an indefinite delay in receiving baptism, since such souls receive from the teaching and the sacraments of the Christian religion more benefit of soul and support in final perseverance than from any trial of their resolve through delay of the sacrament.6

Finally, whether lawfully or unlawfully, should someone secretly have baptised a child, then this must be reported to one’s parish priest or equivalent by that person (or by another person aware of the situation if they do not do this). The validity of the baptism must be investigated and the fact that the child is certainly or doubtfully baptised must be duly recorded by the Church. In due course, the child’s parents must be notified and urged to permit its Catholic upbringing. If that is not possible, then the child himself or herself must be informed later on, and encouraged to embrace the Faith. It must also be explained that the fact of baptism has consequences for the validity of marriage later on.

Let all of this remind us what a precious thing the sacrament of baptism is; how great its dignity is, and how important the duties are which it imposes. Let us all, accordingly, pray for the Catholic family, so fiercely under attack in the modern world, and for Catholic grandparents, whose mission today is more essential than ever. †

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  • 1Dominican moralist Fr. Nicholas Halligan writes that baptism is not deemed to be necessary in this legal sense: “...unless the child is in proximate, certain and personal danger of death, when out of charity one must baptise him (at least secretly); thus the fact of a contagious disease breaking out is not sufficient cause to baptise unless the child has been affected by the disease. Even in such danger of death, baptism must be omitted, if hatred of the infidels (especially of Mohammedans) would be aroused and even persecution of the Church incited, e.g. in mission lands; prudence demands that the benefit of one soul be sacrificed and left to God's mercy for the sake of the common welfare of the Church and of many other souls. If the danger of death is only probable but not certain, baptism may be administered. In doubt whether the child of infidels who is in danger of death, and who cannot be instructed, has reached the use of reason, he should be instructed as well as possible, otherwise baptised conditionally, when the doubt regards his will or desire to be baptised.”—N. Halligan, O.P., The Administration of the Sacraments Cork, 1963 (Mercier Press) p. 42.
  • 2By “right intention” is here meant the objective intention of the person administering the sacrament to do what the Church does, or what Christians do in baptism. It does not refer to the subjective intention motivating the person in undertaking the action. Since anyone can validly baptise in an emergency, it suffices that their intention correspond to that of the Church objectively. Thus the Catholic mother who has just given birth to a baby whose life is in danger, and who is too weak to baptise her child herself, might ask a Muslim doctor or atheist nurse attending her to perform an emergency baptism according to her instructions. The intention of the obliging Muslim or atheist would simply to be to do that which the woman requests, which in turn would correspond objectively to the intention of Our Lord and His Church; valid baptism would result.
  • 3Canons 861 §1 and 868 in the present code. The corresponding canons in the 1917 code are 742, 750: "§1. The infant of infidels, even over the objections of the parents, is licitly baptised when life is so threatened that it is prudently foreseen that death will result before the infant attains the use of reason. "§2. Outside of danger of death, provided provision is made for Catholic education, [an infant] is licitly baptised: 1° If the parents or guardians, or at least one of them, consents; 2° If the parents, that is, father, mother, grandfather, grandmother, or guardians are no more, or have lost their rights over [the infant] or cannot in any way exercise it..".—Translation of the 1983 code at: "751: Generally the norms specified in the above canons are to be observed whenever it is a case of the baptism of the infant of two heretics or schismatics, or of two Catholics who have fallen into apostasy, heresy, or schism..."—Translation of the 1917 code in: Dr Edward N. Peters (ed.), The 1917 or Pio-Benedictine Code of Canon Law in English translation with extensive scholarly apparatus (Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2001).
  • 4St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, III Q. 68, Art. 10 (English Dominican translation).
  • 5Pius XI, Divini Illius Magistri, 39. Translation here:…
  • 6Ibid. p. 43.